Flaming June

Paintings in Christie’s books are a subject still being scarcely discussed. Her great interest in the revival of Victorian paintings occurred long before Jeremy Maas published Victorian Painters and Sir John Betjeman led a campaign to protect the crumbling Victorian buildings.

As the Impressionists rise to fame, the lights extinguish for Victorian art. Having been perceived as prudish and encouraged conformity, a number of Victorian masterpieces become abandoned and forgotten.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you, my dears – you, Raymond and you, Joan about the rather curious little business that happened some years ago now. I don’t want to seem vain in any way – of course I know in comparison with you young people I am not clever at all – Raymond writes those very modern books all about rather unpleasant young men and women – and Joan paints those very remarkable pictures of square people with curious bulges on them – very clever of you, my dear, but as Raymond always says (only quite kindly, because he is the kindest of nephews) I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma-Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they seem hopelessly vieux jeu. Now let me see, what was I saying?

The opening of Miss Marple Tells A Story (in Miss Marple’s Final Cases) names two renowned but under-celebrated painters whose genius works regain their much-deserved credits a centenary later.

My impression of Flaming June was the striking pose of the woman in a saffron-coloured dress. What’s so special about a portrait of a woman in her slumber? Christie might have scolded it me on the spot had I spoken it out aloud.

 

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Frederick Leighton’s last paintings as shown in a private exhibition at Royal Academy of Art in May 1895. His illness prevents him to attend the opening. From left: Candida (submitted but not exhibited), Lachrymae, The Maid With The Golden Hair, ‘Twixt Hope and Fear and Flaming June

Standing at the back of Sir Frederick’s stunning studio where it was displayed, I feel as if I were the man himself staring at his muse napping after a day’s tiring work. While the gilded tabernacle frame enforces the emotion to the painting the flowing material chosen for the dress showcasing beauty and intimacy. She must have been someone special.

I wondered whether Christie had an opportunity to see it in 1930; the last time it was shown to the public in the house. She would’ve been thrilled to had learnt about the accidental icon of Victorian art being reunited with Lachrymae, The Maid With The Golden Hair and ‘Twixt Hope and Fear – just as the way they were when first revealed to the public.

 

 

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A portrait of Dorothy Dene at Sir Frederick’s study at Leighton House

The fascinating story of Flaming June goes beyond its being disappeared until Jeremy Maas bought it for £1,000 from Colonel Frederick Beddington in 1962. A year later Luis A Ferre buys it from Maas for £2,000 . The founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce gives the neglected jewel its lasting home. The young Andrew Lloyd Weber could have got hold of it, had he not listened to her grandmother’s remark of not having any Victorian junk in her home.

 

Like Christie’s murder mystery, speculations revolve round the model’s identity. Whilst Flaming June came back in 1996 ’s Leighton centenary exhibition a star, the woman in it remains an enigma until 2011.

Following the discovery of the only head study of Flaming June (1894) in West Hosterley Place, now the ‘weary model’ can be confirmed as none other than Dorothy Dene.

 

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The Head Study for Flaming June (1894)

The nineteen-year-old working-class girl from Clapham meets the fifty-year-old son of a physician. Leighton’s grandfather was the primary physician to the Russian royal family in St. Petersburg.

Their class difference holds little of their becoming closer; his introducing her to his art’s circle of friends and advancing her stage career. Their unusual relationship subsequently triggers rumours of their being intimate. Later she lives in a flat not far from Leighton House and is allowed at his dead bed.  He leaves a bequest of £5,000 for her and another £5,000 to set up a trust fund to help her siblings. Dene dies at the age of forty in 1900.

 

Both never marry despite the witnessed affection between them. Either he might have been just a father figure to her or he thought he had been too old to be her husband. Whatever the story is, they remind me of Boyd Barrington and Barbara Franklyn in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. The former is a bachelor with a high social standing and the latter a scientist’s wife to whom Barrington has known since she was seventeen. Their spending summer at Styles –now a guest house running by the Lutrells- surge old memories and inevitably the old feelings.

I bid goodbye to Leighton House with lingering thoughts about Sir Frederick and Dorothy Dene. Theirs are a book to write.

 

Reference:

-Flaming June: The Making of an Icon. Leighton House Museum (4 November 2016 – 2 April 2017)

Notes on Miss Marple’s Final Cases

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Year of Publication: 1979

Motive for Murder: wealth and revenge

 

Plot:

1.Sanctuary: Bunch opens the church to find a dying man at the altar. He mumbles his last word sanctuary and the other that sounds like her husband’s name: Julian, the vicar. When a man and a woman turn up and claim the deceased as their brother, Bunch starts to smell a rotten business in the stranger’s death. Particularly, they insist to take his shabby coat which is stained with blood as a memento.

 

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Dorchester Abbey in Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire,UK is a filming set for A Murder Is Announced which features Reverend Julian Harmon and his wife Bunch.

2.Strange Jest: The benefactors to Matthew Rossiter’s will Charmian Stroud and Edward Rossiter are running out of time to solve  his late uncle’s riddle. They believe there’s been a buried treasure in Ansteys- the inherited home they love so much. Despite their effort they can’t find it. Being under the pressure to either foot the bill  or sell the property, they turn to Miss Marple for her insights on Victorian idiosyncrasies.

 

3.Tape-Measure Murder: Constable Palk is not supposed to touch anything in a crime scene. Yet he’s picked up a pin on his uniform, having come first to the crime scene. Mrs. Spenlow has been strangled in her home dressed in a kimono.Yet, as the saying goes: ‘see a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck.’

4.The Case of the Caretaker: Harry Laxton comes back to his village a wealthy man. The prodigal son of Major Laxton has bought the Kingsdean estate where he spent his boyhood and rebuilt the house after his marriage to Louise, a rich Anglo-French woman. An orphan with considerable fortune, her happiness is put to a test when Mrs. Murgatroyd, the widow of the former caretaker whom lives in a corner of the estate threatens the other. Not long afterwards Louise falls off her horse and never regains consciousness.

5.The Case of the Perfect Maid: St. Mary Mead is buzzing with the enviable Mary Higgins. The Skinner sisters’ perfect maid is everybody’s dream. Is it too good to be true? Miss Marple visit them to find out more.

6.Miss Marple Tells a Story: An old friend, Mr. Petherick, comes with his client to consult the sleuth about Mr. Rhoderick’s case. For he’s been suspected to have stabbed his wife in her bed while they were staying at the Crown Hotel in Barnchester. What would she suggest the solicitor regarding the line of defence in the court?

7.The Dressmaker’s Doll: Alicia Coombe announces to her staff that she has given up the

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Who  is the man in the mir

use of the fitting-room. Nobody hesitates that the decision may come from a menacing-look puppet doll of the dressmaker that seems to occupy the place. Feeling the continual terrors of it, Alicia feels compelled in the end to throw it away. Despite her relief, will it stop bothering her?

 

8.In A Glass Darkly: On his best friend’s invitation a young man stays over at his home Badgeworthy. There he meets the other’s sister Sylvia Carslake and her fiancée Charles Crawley. To his horror, the man happens to see in  the mirror Sylvia’s being strangled in her bed by Crawley.

 

Highlights:

Published posthumously, the six stories of Jane Marple’s show the unwavering wits of Christie’s.  As for the two other stories, The Dressmaker’s Doll and In A Glass Darkly, their inclusion I believe has suggested their having been discovered with the others after Christie’s death in 1976. Other unknown short stories  emerge later on in Greenways;  While The Light Lasts and Problems At Pollensa Bay were released in 1990s.

In 2013 I bought a second-hand copy of 2002’s signature edition. In it there was another short story, A Greenshaw’s Folly. Two years later, however, I happened to get hold some 2006’s facsimile edition in crisp condition a National Trust second-hand bookshop. Interestingly, it does not contain Miss Marple’s finding the murder of Miss Greenshaw.

Having studied about Agatha Christie’s writings in the last four years, I have established a fair assumption that she might have written some at the same time; be they a scene of a play here and details for a short story there. In the meantime, she might have re-read her previously published books and therefore a subplot would have had a new lease of life with different character names and setting.

 

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Bunch puts down the Chrysanthemums she has brought for the church to come closer to a huddled body on the chancel steps

Her ‘recycling’ a setting with a different twist for the plot is noticeable in this collection, too. First, Sanctuary featuring Reverend Julian Harmons and his wife Bunch will jog readers’ minds to A Murder Is Announced (1950). In the novel Bunch is acquainted with Miss Marple, whilst her curious nature in the short story makes her go for a day to meet the sleuth who stays at West’s home in London. It’s likely Tape-Measure Murder might have been drafted right after, punctuated by the naming of Laburnam Cottage in both stories.

 

During the writing, I supposed Christie was aware that she couldn’t omit the trio chief gossipers of St. Mary Mead. Nor should she have put them together in a piece. Hence in Tape-Measure Murder Miss Hartnell lives next to the victim Mrs. Spenlow; Miss Wetherby has her turn to further announce to the world about Lavinia Skinner’s accusing her maid Gladys to have stolen her jewellery and Miss Harmon is in the chemist when Harry Laxton introduces his wife Louise to Bella, his ex-girlfriend and the chemist’s daughter.

Next, there is a main theme running in the stories: jewellery robbery. In the difficult times between the two wars and post-second world war, crimes did occur to gain access to the valuables. With her craft Christie depicts the hardship which continued to engulf the UK right until in the sixties. The plot for At Bertram’s Hotel is based on The Great Train Robbery in 1963.

 

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Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

Christie is adept to a matter close to heart to many of her readers: the ongoing problems of domestic worker issue. I wonder what would have been her opinions about of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and The Diary of A Provincial Woman, as the books share the same clinging-on sense of the tradition whilst at the same time they are aware of their financial constraint and labour shortage. Notwithstanding whether Christie had read the two books, she herself ‘empowers’ the likes of Gladys et all as a minor character with various roles. More importantly, Christie seems to stress that some maids may have more than meet the eye.

 

Christie brings in Doctor Haydock for The Case of The Caretaker suggests the possibility of Christie’s working on Sleeping Murder, too. In the former, he infers the murder of Louisa Haxton in his note to the sleuth. In the latter, it is Miss Marple who begs to prescribe him for a trip to a seaside to help Gwenda Halliday.

By the same token is the re-appearance of Mr. Petherick the solicitor (see also The Thirteen Problems). Perhaps it’s the same ‘madness’ to his clients to see a silver-haired woman and furthermore to consult her about the case. Mr. Rhoderick is unconvinced as to how Miss Marple’s twinkling eyes can drop a murder charge looming over him.

But Mr. Petherick himself utters to his old friend: ‘In a case of illness one likes two points of views – that of the specialist and that of the family physician. It is the fashion to regard the former as of more value, but I am not sure that I agree. The specialist has experience only in his own subject; the family doctor has, perhaps, less knowledge – but a wider experience.

In the absence of Miss Marple in the last two stories, Christie puts a stress on the pertaining sense of mystery which parallels to the story theme in The Hound of Death (1932). Her exploration into the unexplained occurrences and baffling phenomena underlines what her contemporaries try to grasp owing to the shocking  change of Europe’s political map and the global economy crises.

Lastly, it’s pitiful but understandable that Christie could be audacious in her dialogues but still adheres to the golden rule of  fiction as an escape. By shifting fears to uncertain future to objects, ie. a mirror and a lively-looking velvet doll she is being non-judgmental to things that might terror people’s mind.

Thus Alicia Coombe can loose her battle  against her illogical thoughts and the male narrator succumbs to the imagery in the mirror. In her frustration Alicia tries to persuade a girl to give the doll back to her and her refusal to do so is then summed up by Alicia’s talking to herself in the last sentence : ‘perhaps…perhaps that’s what she wanted all along… to be loved….’ All of a sudden I felt sympathy to her.

Be that as it may, it beats not In A Glass Darkly. The unnamed narrator takes readers to the summer 1914; the timing being a focal point. It’s universally acknowledged as the last happy memory for Christie’s generation; the great calamity in the Great War is then repeated in the Second World War.

The premonition he sees in the mirror along with the sombre mood of a survivor’s guilt are conspicuous. Did he know who he was afterwards? Can he trust his judgment? Finally, Sylvia’s polite response on his telling her what he’s seen the other day that leaves a lingering thought: ‘I’m sure you did if you say so. I believe you.’

What do you think?

 

Cast of Characters:

In Sanctuary:

-Police Constable Abel

-Inspector Craddock

-The Eccless (husband and wife, claiming to be the deceased’s family)

-Edwin Moss (who takes Bunch’s suitcase)

-The Harmons (Reverend Julian and his wife Diana,a.k.a. Bunch)

 

In Strange Jest:

-Charmian Stroud

-Edward Rossiter

– Jane Helier (Charmian and Edward’s friend)

 

In Tape-Measure Murder:

-Miss Hartnell

-Colonel Melchett (the chief constable of St. Mary Mead)

-Miss Pollit (a dressmaker)

-Constable Palk (who comes to a crime scene the first time)

-Inspector Slack

 

In The Case of The Caretaker:

-Miss Bell

-Clarice Vane (Doctor Haddock’s niece, Louise’s friend)

-Doctor Haddock

-Miss Harmon

-Mrs. Murgatroyd (lives in a corner of the Kingsdean estate)

-the Laxtons (Harry and his wife Louisa who live in Kingsdean)

 

In The Case of The Perfect Maid:249824

-Edna (Miss Marple’s maid and Gladys’s cousin)

-Mary Higgins (the perfect maid)

-Colonel Melchett (the chief constable)

-The Skinner sisters (Lavinia and Emily)

-Inspector Slack

-Miss Wetherby

 

In Miss Marple Tells A Story:

-Mrs. Carruthers ( a hotel’s guest)

-Mrs Granby (a hotel’s guest)

-Mr. Petherick (a solicitor preparing for the case, Miss Marple’s friend)

-Mr. Rhodes (Mr. Petherick’s client)

 

In The Dressmaker’s Doll:

-Alicia Coombe (a dressmaker)

-Mrs. Fellows-Brown (Alicia’s client who tries on a dress)

-Mrs. Fox ( the cleaner)

-Sybil Fox (Alicia’s assistant)

 

In A Glass Darkly:

-Sylvia Carslake

-The narrator (Sylvia’s husband)

 

 

 

Notes on The Moving Finger

Rate: 4 out of five

Year of Publication: 1943

Motive for Murder: Greed

 

Plot:

In a sleepy Lymstock, nothing untoward happened. Peace was the norm in the idyllic village: no wars, no bombs.  Until the first murder occurred.  The Symmingtons’ housemaid body was found cold in the downstairs’ cupboard with a blunt force trauma in her head. A week beforehand, Mona Symmington committe suicide.

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Chilham village in Kent, the filming location for fictitious Lymstock in 2006’s adaptation of Miss Marple series.

 

Anonymous hate letters had circulated, as the poison pen  spread scare among the villagers. Despite their being defiant about the letters, fears and anxiety increased being a target of abhorrent accusations.

In the meantime, Megan Hunter saw something on the day her mother died. A young girl of twenty, she was often seen wandering round the village either in her bike or on foot. Aimee Griffith disliked her idleness, whereas some had sympathy to the girl whose mother paid little attention to her.

She saw something she wasn’t supposed to see. As she realised what would happen next, it was nobody but her who could prevent it become materialised. Could she trust herself to take a high risk to save her life and others?

 

Highlights:

In today’s social media age, the tales of fake news and rampant finger pointing are ubiquitous; the internet trolls that spewed poisonous comments then propelled an issue to a much larger scale and onto a different level.

The devastating impact of hoaxes had also left imprints in Christie’s world; Elinor Carlisle receiving spiteful letters after her engagement in Sad Cypress(1940) and Dr. Charles Odfield asking for Poirot’s help to clear his name due to rumours about his poisoning his late wife in the Labours of Hercules (1947). If vile letters were exist in those books to flavour to a plot, in The Moving Finger the issue became the epitome of an abuse in words.

From the onset Christie put forward the various effects of libels for their respective recipients. To the brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton, such was an expression of alienation to foreigners that strengthens the villagers’ watchful glance towards them and their quiet sighing to their cosmopolitan behaviour. To Dick Symmington the solicitor, his reputation, having only opened his practice for a few years, was at stake.

Supposed the book was a blank painting canvass,  Christie then had morphed it into a Jackson Pollock ; the dialogues were the outpourings of characters’ mind while delivering blatant criticism on society.

I have noticed that the books Christie had written during the War may carry the homogenous spirit of being bold and fearless about life. They expose the worst in human’s nature that leave pins and needles sensations in their wake.

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London Children during The Blitz 1940

 

As far as I am concerned, Christie stayed put in London during the War. Her decision was made mainly because of her daughter, Rosalind Hick, whose first husband Hubert de Burgh Pritchard was on an active service an died in 1944.

Come what may, the book touched nothing about the War, although the apparent distress which engulfed Lymstock might have mirrored the uncertainty of the War. Clearly Christie banned any mention of it, but turned the sky of ostensibly picture-perfect setting of the countryside into a cloud of vultures circling an area where a carcass of crime is identifiable and the smell of it inevitable.

Enter the young village doctor Owen Griffith and the orphan Megan Hunter. Together with the Burtons Christie spun the plot around the four of them. Jerry seemed to be an extrovert version of Colonel Hastings; Joanna’s carefree attitude paralleled to Giselda Clement (Murder At The Vicarage) and Dr. Griffith might have been Dr. James Sheppard – only younger and more handsome.

As circumstances altered and characters changed, attention turned into Aimee Griffith, Owen’s older sister.  A semblance to Catherine Sheppard, Aimee was atypical spinster character in other books (see more on The Most Fascinating Character). Likewise, Mona Symmington could be likened to Mrs Ferrars (see Notes On The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).  By the same token, Mr. Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russel had the same traits to Mrs Cane de Althorp  – their detecting ‘bad smell’ in people.

The plot saw Christie’s  marvelling at putting the right dose between feeding excitement and inducing sinister sentiments. Clues dropped in unexpected situations obscured in an ambiguous tone. Whilst it could be quite confusing at times, her sticking to Jerry’s viewpoint held together the loose ends.

As expected, the subplots bore comparable details in her previous books. Nonetheless,  it takes a skilful writer with tricks up her sleeves to pinch a detail and combine it with others to create an entirely different setting. Halfway  I felt I could guess whodunit although I realised that the theatrical touch in it would only make sense as I turned to the last chapter.

Miss Marple remained behind the screen until the last five thousand words.  Meanwhile, some readers might have asked themselves whether the Burtons had been a one-off Tommy and Tuppence. Only in the end it explained the police’s involving Jerry in the investigation in spite of the fact he was a suspect.

To conclude, it is a Miss Marple book that deserves more recognition among Christie’s fans. It’s more than the craft of the plot, but a study of point of views: have we seen an issue in a bigger picture?

 

The Twists:

-Dick Symmington donated his old typewriter to the Women’s Institute

-Megan Hunter’s father was imprisoned for blackmail

-Aimee Griffith wrote the anonymous letter to Elsie Holland

– Joanna Burton received a hate letter that was intended for Emily Barton

– Mrs Dane Calthrop roped in help from an old friend: Miss Marple

– Emily Barton’s prayer book with ripped pages used by the Poison Pen in different anonymous letters was found in the Symmingtons’ downstairs cupboards

 

Cast of Characters:

– Mrs. Baker (Beatrice’s mum; Beatrice a housemaid at Little Furze)

– The Burtons (Joanna and Jerry)

– The Dane Calthrops (Reverend Caleb and his wife)

– Elsie Holland (a governess at the Symmingtons)

– Emily Barton (whose house Little Furze was rented out to the Burtons)

– Florence (Miss Barton’s former maid)

– Miss Ginch (Dick Symmington’s secretary in the law office)

– Inspector Graves (Scotland Yard)

– The Griffiths (Owen the village doctor and Aimee who ran girl’s guide)

– Marcus Kent (Jerry Burton’s doctor)

– Megan Hunter (Mona Symmington’s daughter from her first marriage)

– Superintendent Nash

– Partridge (the cook at Little Furze)

– Sergeant Perkins

– Mr Pye (the proud owner of Prior’s Lodge who has a penchant for antiques)

– The Symmingtons (Dick the lawyer and his wife Mona)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Aimee Griffith

Christie’s crime novels have a number of spinsters in them; from Miss Marple herself to Kirsten Lindstrom (Ordeal by Innocence); from Cecilia Williams (Five Little Pigs) to Nurse Jessie Hopkins (Sad Cypress).

Aimee Griffith is not just another one. In her most renowned book, Christie establishes Dr. Shepepard’s sister’s reputation being a chief gossip in King’s Abbot right from the beginning. On the contrary,  she introduces Aimee as just one of Jerry Burton’s encounters with the villagers without a hint of importance to her role. Her presence is more often due to her access to a typewriter the police have believed being used to type the poisonous letters.

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Jessica Hynes as Aimee Griffith in 2006’s Miss Marple series

 

She disapproves  Megan Hunter; her being the daughter of ‘the wrong un’ To Jerry Burton, Aimee is rather overwhelming. ‘Too much an Amazon for me,’ heremarks to Joanna once.

Unlike other fore-mentioned spinster characters, Aimee is good looking. She is comfortable in her own skin and bold, although she seems to be on guard with words and tends to keep her ideas to herself.

In her absence still there are echoes of her. She argues with Jerry about gender equality with  apparent franknesss. ‘It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Owen. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.’

The bombshell is then dropped when the police arrest Aimee for sending a warning letter to Elsie Holland. Worse, Aimee has denied having done it. Meanwhile, the police has realised she has held back information about two other suspects.

Things look pessimistic for her. Only Miss Marple who can help squash her charge with a huge favour from Megan.

 

Clues:

Jerry Burton (JB) and Aimee Griffith (AG) (after the inquest on the death of Mona Symmington):

AG; ‘ I was terribly sorry for Dick Symmington its all having to come put as it did at the inquest. It was awful for him.’

JB: ‘But surely you heard him say that there was not a word of truth in that letter – that he was quite sure of that?’

AG: ‘Of course he said so. Quite right. A man’s got to stick up for his wife. Dick would. You see, I’ve known Dick Symmington a long time.’

JB: ‘Really? I understood from your brother that he only bought this practice a few years ago.’

AG: ‘Oh yes, but Dick Symmington used to come and stay in our part of the world up north. I’ve known him for years. I know Dick very well…. He’s a proud man, and very reserved. But he’s the sort of man who could be very jealous.’

JB: ‘That would explain why Mrs. Symmington was afraid to show him or tell him about the letter. She was afraid that, being a jealous man, he might not believe her denials.’

AG: ‘Good Lord. DO you think any woman would go and swallow a lot of cyaniade potassium for an accusation that wasn’t true?’

JB: ‘The coroner seemed to think it was possible. Your brother, too…’

AG: ‘Men are all alike. All for preserving the decencies. But you don’t catch me believing that stuff. If an innocent woman get some foul anonymous letter, she laughs and chucks it away. That’s what I….would do.’

JB: ‘I see. So you’ve had one, too.’

 

Dick Symmington(DS) and Megan Hunter(MH):

MH: ‘I would like to speak to you, please. Alone.’

DS: ‘Well, Megan, what is it? What do you want?’

MH: ‘I want some money.’

DS: ‘Couldn’t you have waited until to-morrow morning? What’s the matter, do you think your allowance is inadequate?’

MH: ‘I want a good deal of money.’

DS: ‘You will come of age in a few months’ time. Then the money left you by your grandmother will be turned over to you by the public trustee.’

MH: ‘ You don’t understand. I want money from you. Nobody’s ever talked to me much about my father. They’ve not wanted me to know about him. But I do know he went to prison and I know why. It was for blackmail!

‘Well, I am his daughter. And perhaps I take after him. Anyway, I am asking you to give me money because… if you don’t….’

The Sinking of Lusitania: Is It All German’s Fault?

‘It was 2 p.m on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead’   

The Secret Adversary begins with a scene in the aftermath of the shinking liner, in which an American man trusts a stranger, his fellow citizen, with a highly confidential document. Tommy and Tuppence then are involved in the hunt of it, which, if the enemy gets it first, would bring down the incumbent Tory government.

British newspapers condemn the tragedy as ‘The Hun’s Most Ghastly Crime’ and Woodrow Wilson is also quick to state: ‘no warning, that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation of that act.’ Among the deads are 128 Americans.

Likewise, Christie’s aforementioned words are filled with the sentiment against Germans. The pain is still raw  when the book is published in 1922. It is a little wonder the copies have been sold like hot cakes, despite the hardship most people in Britain have experienced in the post-war years.

Over a century later, Saul David, a historian, asks: can the blame be pointed entirely to Germans?

In his article for May’s History magazine he argues that British government should also be held responsible for the loss of 1,198 lives including 94 children (out of 1,959 passengers and crews).

The advertisement on the New York Times on 1st May 1915

On 1st May 1915, the German embassy in Washington D.C. advertises in the New York Times to remind ‘travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage’ that ‘vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or ay of her allies, are liable to destruction’ in the war zone ‘adjacent to the British Isles’ and that any travellers who crossed by such means did so ‘at their own risk.’

1,257 people who have embarked on the Lusitania on the same day from Liverpool ignore it.

Meanwhile, the British Admiralty has issued secret guidelines to merchant skippers: to ‘avoid headlands, near which submarines routinely lurked and found their best hunting’; to steer ‘a mid-channel course’; to operate at ‘full speed’ and to zigzag rather than sail in in a straight line.

Captain William Turner

On 5th May at 10.30 pm The British Admiralty begins to broadcasting a messae at regular intervals to all ships that a U-boat is active in the Irish Channel. Few hours earlier U-20 has sunk a small three-masted schooner off the south coast of Ireland. The next day it sinks two merchant ships off Ireland.

On 6th Mayat 7.52 pm Captain Turner of the Lusitania receives a wireless signal that submarines are ‘active off south coast Ireland.’ Five more warnings are then received.

On 7th May at 8 am he orders the speed to be decreased from 21 to 18 knots, and then to 15 due to the fog.

As the fog is cleared, at 10 am the speed is increased to 18 knots instead of the maximum 21 knots.

At 1 pm the captain orders the fixing of the ship’s position, a laborious process that takes two hours and requires a steady course, constant speed and proximity to land.

At 2.10 pm Kapitanleutnant Scwieger strikes the starboard side of the Lusitania beloow the bridge, causing two explosions.  The Lusitania sinks in 18 minutes.

Kapitantleutnant Walther Schwieger

Watching through his periscope, Schwieger remembers ‘an unusually heavy detonation’ followed by ‘very strong explosion cloud.’ In his diary he writes:

‘The ship stops immediately and quickly heels to starboard, at the same time diving deeper in the bows. She has the appearance of being about to capsize. Great confusion on board, bots being cleared and part lowered to water. They must have lost their heads. Many boats crowded come down bow first or stern first in the water, and immediately fill and sink…Submerge to 24 metres and got to sea. I could not have fired a second torpedo into this throng of humanity attempting to save themselves’ 

If his words are taken into account, is the above prologue possible to occur? Eighteen minutes are very quick from the moment the torpedo hits the ship; there wouldn’t have been enough warning for every passengers, let alone a brief conversation between Jane Finn and Danvers. For Scwieger’s notes imply that 761 survivors are rescued by the boats in the water. And therefore Danvers might have died before he met Finn whilst Finn could not have stood on the ship awaiting the rescue.

Furthermore is the fact that only one torpedo launched. Apologising to the loss of life of the U.S. citizens, the kaiser’s government states that such action is justified in response to the royal Navy’s blockade of the German  coast (causing starvation) and because the Lusitania carries large quantities of war materials in her cargo. The latter is strongly denied  by the British government and its successors.

In 2008  it is confirmed more than 4 million .303 rifle bullets and tons of munitions -shells, powders, fuses and gun cotton- found in ‘unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters.’ Some conclude that these have caused the second explosion, although in 2012 scientific tests at a US government-funded research facility in California challenge the deduction. The second explosion might be a boiler explosion which does not bring about significant damage.

Is Christie a victim of either of a propaganda or trial by the press? What would be her views had she read the contrasting facts?

For all its worth, it has given the desired effect to persuade the American public in favour of the US declaring war on Germany in April 1917.

At the end of the day, it remains that the UK government ought to own up for their part in the unnecessary casualties. As David remarks: ‘A German U-Boat may have fired the fatal shot. But it was British actions that both justified that aggression and helped the torpedo find its mark.’

What do you think?

Notes On Passenger From Frankfurt

Sigfried’s Horn Call

Rating : 2.5 out of fiveDate of Publication: 1970

Motive for Crimes: World Power

Plot:

Two different cars try to run over Sir Stafford Nye in twenty hours. Prior to the first incident his bedroom is searched.

Two days beforehand at Frankfurt airport his drink was spiked his travel cloak was taken. As a result he missed the flight to London and somebody used his passport to enter Britain. Somebody whom looked like him and had a similar built.

Furthermore, he does not come home after the dinner at the U.S. Embassy. He is seen for the last time having gone into a car. Who is in the car? What makes him go into the car? And where does it take him? Within days the U.S. ambassador is reported to have been assassinated at the steps of the Embassy by a person unknown.

In Bavaria, Lady Matilda Cleckheaton goes to see ‘Big Charlotte,’ an old school friend with vast wealth. Sir Stafford’s great aunt listens to the German Countess while she is deliberating her ideas about the New World Order. The Ring. The youth army. The Young Sigfried.

In the mean time the German Chancellor flies to Britain for an ‘unofficial visit’ to discuss a pressing matter with the Prime Minister. Herr Spiess is accompanied by Dr. Reichardt, an eminent psychiatrist, whom will share his discovery concerning a certain patient in the mental institution where he works. For the information may shed light behind the student protests occurred all over Europe and the US.

 

Highlights:

‘Most of the things that happen in it are happening, or giving promise of happening in the world today. It is not an impossible story – it is only a fantastic one’

Christie’s Foreword in Fontana Paper Back

 

One aspect Christie marvels at is her blend of romance and adventure in the plot. On the one hand, from Anne Beddingfield to Tuppence Beresford, Christie’s heroines are framed and captured, have a brush with death, but in the end they are vindicated. They learn to adapt amidst the dangerous situations they are in and face their respective sleeping enemies in a surprising ending. On the other, there is a particular conspiracy theme the authoress cares about more which revolves round the German Invasion to Britain.

In her books published after the War the theme seems to fade away – if only just for a while. When all her reflections on the impacts of the War in 1950s’ books, such as Mrs. Mc Ginty’s Dead, Dead Man’s Folly and 4.50 From Paddington are done and dusted, Christie resumes her interest. Passenger from Frankfurt, released to coincide with her eightieth birthday, is an exemplary example. After the Beresford’s last adventure in Postern of Fate, she makes the threat of Neo-Nazism clear.

What intrigues me is her association between Richard Wagner and Adolf Hitler. Christie’s take on the Cold War politics corroborates her favourite three-act opera Sigfried, which is part of Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen.

In the first act of the opera, Mime the dwarf raises the human Sigfried as the dwarf has wished for the Nibelungs’ treasures guarded by a dragon called Fafner. The plan is for Sigfried to kill it with a sword the dwarf has forged for the purpose. But Sigfried, who has no fear, breaks the sword and leaves in despair when he could not mend the metal.

Sigfried blows his horn by A.Rackham (1911)

The book opens with the accident at Frankfurt airport. Sir Stafford Nye, of whom according to his esteemed colleagues has not taken things seriously, is suspected to have a part in the stolen passport of his. As for Lady Matilda, it is to do with ‘Brunnhilde’; a woman ‘Sigfried’ comes to see in the mountains (see Clues part for more details).

In the second act of the opera, Sigfried attempts to imitate the singing of a bird in a reed pipe. Far from success, he instead produces a horn call. It awakens Fafner and the battle between them ensues. By the time they face each other Sigfried has been able to repair Nothung, a fragment of his late father’s sword, of which Mime has given. In Sigfried’s absence a Wotan approaches Mime with the riddles. He could answer all but one: who will repair Nothung?

In its dying words Fafner warns Sigfried the damaging power of the treasures. Mime then offers Sigfried the (poisonous) potion to drink up, but no sooner does Sigfried realise than Mime has intended to do Sigfried stabs the dwarf to death with Nothung.

Sigfried’s Horn Call is a Wagnerian motif which Christie uses in the book as a clue to the intelligence mission Sir Stafford has been involved with by accident. He has saved the life of ‘Mary Ann’ whom has brought with her the required evidence to end ‘The Ring’ in which ‘Big Charlotte’ is part of it.

Lady Matilda’s playing the roles of ‘Fafner’ and ‘the bird’ is most interesting. Her wits would remind readers of Jane Marple and Tuppence (see The Most Fascinating Character). Her curiousity has been aroused by her great nephew’s story in Frankfurt and moreover when he turns up in ‘Big Charlotte’s castle in Bavaria with ‘Mary Ann.’

Suspicions thrown at ‘Mary Ann’ later. To begin with, she has been spotted to have been in troubled places. Next is her personal relationship to ‘Big Charlotte.’ Third, her background as the descendent of the English Hanoverian Monarch.

Brunnhilde, from whom Sigfried finally learns to fear.

As the plot goes right and left, the European leaders and everybody who matters would have to join arms against a few powerful people in ‘The Ring’ whom like to establish the New World Order. Consequently the list of Cast of Characters grows longer and the new minor characters make the plot meander. In the first reading I skipped pages as some conversations had turned into speeches and a rambling, which is unlike Christie’s in her 1930’s and 1940’s books at all. Then small details jumped out in the second reading, which made me feel ill at ease.

Personally it is the less exciting book of Christie’s when the expectation is the thrills and pace in Anne’s Adventure (see Notes On The Man In The Brown Suit). Nevertheless my respect goes to her wide knowledge of world politics and her deep understanding of the tangled mess of it.

By the same token is her understanding about Wagner’s monumental operas. Much has been said about Christie’s fondness of plays and her having been inspired by Macbeth and Othello. Little has been touched on the subject of the influence of Wagner’s music and characters on Christie nevertheless. In the book there is a touch of Tannhauser in which ‘Juanita’ the super spy that is part of ‘The Ring’ is depicted as the overpowering Venus. Who she really is as good as everybody’s guessing.

What I have found slightly uncomforting is the association between Wagner and Hitler. He is a fan, yes, but Wagner’s works have been much appreciated by many others too. Take the example of the Prelude to Lohengrin, Act 1 in The Globe Scene In The Great Dictator (1940). And how about the prelude in Tristan and Isolde for a scene in Alfred Hitchock’s Murder (1930)?

What is more, it fascinates me that Christie might suggest in the book that the Bayreuth Festival could be soon a history. Hands up here who has been able to get a ticket to it?

But perhaps Christie, like her protagonist Sir Stafford Nye, has a message to bring up the theory of Hitler’s double in the bunker in Berlin as the city fell to the Soviets in Summer 1945. Did she intend to rest the case once for all? Funnily enough, forty-four years later the suggestion that Hitler might have died an old age in South America still exists.

By the same token, Bavaria as the setting serves as a reminder to the bygone the House of Saxo-Coburg-Gotha, of which Queen Victoria is a descendant. Moreover is Prince Albert’s ambition to the preservation of monarchy in Europe; that by having married his English cousin he would be able to ward off the advance of Republicans. The 1848 revolutions proves him wrong nevertheless.

Alas, it is not an easy book to read. For what her characters say might be the authoress’ reflections to the political happenings. It is her worries and fears as to the future of scientific projects, religions and art.

I wonder if Christie has endorsed Wagner’s ideas concerning on the significance of art to balance and make the world a kinder place to live in. In the book Professor Robert Shoreham destroys his revolutionary ‘Project Benvo’ in fear of misuse if it gets to the wrong hands. Art for Wagner is a solution to the overpowering science and serves as a mirror towards religion.

Nonetheless art is not a one solution for all to my mind. Likewise, science would not thrive without people’s faith in God. Despite religion being said as the source of conflicts and political upheavals, it is not dead yet. Besides, there is ample evidence that science and art have flourished under the ruling of religious leaders.

Overall, I recommend the book with some reservations given the expectations many readers may have on Christie’s crime stories.

What do you think?

The Twists:

  • Sam Cortman the US Ambassador to Britain is not shot by an unknown anarchist
  • Lord Edward Altamount is not killed by a bullet
  • ‘Juanita’ turns up at Professor Shoreham’s home during Lord Altamount’s visit
  • ‘Panda’ is to be Sir Stafford Nye’s best man

The Most Fascinating Character: Lady Matilda Cleckheaton

‘It’s so frightening, this same idea that always recurs. History repeating itself. The young hero, the golden superman that all must follow.’

Lord Edward Altamount, Admiral Philip Blunt and Professor Robert Shoreham are among her list of friends, so is Countess Charlotte von Waldsausen. Not only is Lady Matilda is a well-connected woman, but also one of the Victorian tours de forces Lord Altamount’s words.

Her past is shrouded in mystery, for she might have been a trained agent herself and was involved in the intelligence missions that her views are respected.

Neuschwanstein Schloss in Bavaria, the fairy castle built by Ludwig II of Bavaria is inspired by Wagner’s Opera.

She persuades Lord Altamount to take her great nephew on board after the ‘accident’ at Frankfurt airport. With this she underlines the fact that as Sir Stafford’s guardian his role in the high-profile mission is not a reward, but merely a nod to his undermined skills and capabilities in the White Hall circle.

As Miss Marple minus a tweet skirt and knitting needles Lady Matilda is not generous on saying ‘my dear’ and subtle remarks. She bullies Sir Stafford to admit his being besotted to ‘Mary Ann’ (see Clues). But once she sets her mind she is quite determined. Like Miss Marple she asks her doctor to justify a treatment she is going to have in Bavaria, a pretext to visit the German Countess’s abode.

In dealing with different people Lady Matilda knows how to adjust herself. To ‘Big Charlotte’ she appears as a penniless aristocrat. Her approach results in a positive response from the other woman and to have accomplished her goal in seeking certain confirmation from the countess. When asked by her nurse Amy Leatheran how the reunion was, she replies: ‘if you could have heard all the nonsense I talked, you wouldn’t believe it.’

Furthermore, to Admiral Blunt she amuses herself by telling him to have been a muse to Professor Shoreham, the founder of Project Benvo. Their conversation speaks volumes of her wits and a Victorian man who must admit that he has been outsmarted by a woman (see Clues).

‘Once a spy always a spy’ fits her well. While her great nephew is on the mission she is doing her bit, too. She seems to know who ‘Juanita’ is before anyone else and shares this with him in passing. Still, Christie puts her at the back seat and plays down her significant role. But only when Lady Matilda has passed the information she has got from ‘Big Charlotte’ to the Intelligence do the climax of the story begin to take shape.

 

Cast of Characters:

The Circle of Lady Matilda Cleckheaton (nee Balden-White):

Amy Leatheran (Lady Matilda’s nurse)

Dr. Donaldson (Lady Matilda’s doctor)

Professor Robert Soreham (a brain surgeon, the founder of Project Benvo, an old friend)

Sir Stafford Nye (great nephew)

Sybil (great great niece)

Mrs. Worrit ( cleaning woman)

Act Three in Sigfried Opera: Sigfried finds a beautiful woman (Brunnhilde) sleeping in the mountains.

The British Intelligence Circle:

Squadron Leader Andrew

Cedric Lazenby (Prime Minister of Britain)

Lord Edward Altamount (Lady Matilda’s old acquaintance)

Eric Pugh (Sir Stafford’s acquaintance/school friend)

Sir George Packham (the ‘Minister’)

Gordon Chetwynd (Sir Stafford’s acquaintance)

Henry Hosam (of the ‘Security’)

Sir James Kleek (Lord Altamount’s right hand man)

Air Marshall Kenwood

Colonel Munro

Admiral Philip Blunt

Colonel Pikeaway ( retired, a former agent)

Mr. Robinson (the financier, appears in ‘Postern of Fate’ and ‘N or M’)

The French:

M.Coin (the Minister for Home Affairs)

M. Grosjean (the president)

M. Poissonier

The Marshall

The U.S. Embassy Dinner:

The Cortmans ( Mildred a.k.a. Milly Jean, the U.S. Ambassador’s wife and Sam her husband)

Countess Renata Zerkowski

The Germans:

Countess Charlotte von Waldsausen (Lady Matilda’s school friend)

Franz Joseph

Professor John Gottlieb (lives in Austin, US)

Herr Heinrich Spiess (the West German Chancellor)

Dr. Reichardt (the psychiatrist at a mental institution in Karlsruhe)

The portrayal of Valkyrie, who chooses who dies in a battle and who may live. In the book ‘Juanita’ is a cross between a Valkyrie and Venus.

Others:

Professor Eckstein (a British scientist)

Lisa Neumann (Professor Shoreham’s secretary)

Dr. McCulloch (doctor at present after shots of gun at Professor Shoreham’s house)

Signor Vitelly (Italy Prime Minister)

Sir Stafford Nye’s guests:

Clifford Brent

Jim Brewster

Roderick Kettely

 

Clues:

Lady Matilda Cleckheaton (MC) and Sir Stafford Nye (SN):

MC: ‘….So you’re mixed up in a romance of some kind, are you?’

SN: ‘What on earth makes you say that?’

MC: ‘Well, there aren’t so many patterns in life, you know. One recognises patterns as they come up. It’s like a book on knitting. About sixty-five different fancy stitches. Well, you know a particular stitch when you see it. Your stitch, at the moment, I should say, is the romantic adventure. But you won’t tell me about it, I suppose.’

SN: ‘There’s nothing to tell.’

MC: ‘You always were quite an accomplished liar. Well, never mind. You bring her to see me some time. That’s all I’d like, before the doctors succeeded in killing me with yet another type of antibiotic that they’ve just discovered.The different coloured pills I’ve had to take by this time! You wouldn’t believe it.’

SN: ‘I don’t know why you say “she” ad “her” –‘

MC: ‘Don’t you? Oh, well, I know a she when I come across a she. There’s a she somewhere dodging about in your life. What beats me is how you found her… Ships coming home? No, you don’t use ships nowadays. Plane perhaps.’

SN: ‘You are getting slightly nearer.’

MC: ‘Ah! Air hostess?’

SN shook his head.

Countess Renata Zerkowski to Sir Stanfford Nye:

‘I had a friend once in the Diplomatic Service who told me how she had said to a German woman how moved she herself had been at the performance of the Passion Play at Oberammergau. But the German woman said scornfully: “You do not understand. We Germans have no need of a Jesus Christ! We have our Adolf Hitler here with us. He is greater than any Jesus that ever lived.” She was quite a nice ordinary woman. But that is how she felt. Masses of people felt it. Hitler was a spell-binder. He spoke and they listened – and accepted the sadism, the gas chambers, the tortures of the Gestapo.’

Admiral Philip Blunt (PB) and Lady Matilda Cleckheaton (MC):

PB: ‘Well, I want to her a little more what Robbie (Professor Shoreham) said about Project B.’

MC: ‘He said – well, it’s very difficult to remember now. He mentioned it after talking about some operation that they used to do on people’s brains. You know, the people who were terribly melancholic and who were thinking of suicide and who were so worried and neurasthenic that they had awful anxiety complexes. Stuff like that, the sort of thing people used to talk of in connection with Freud. And he said that the side effects were impossible. I mean, the people were quite happy and meek and docile and didn’t worry any more, or want to kill themselves, but they – well I mean they didn’t worry enough and therefore they used to get run over and all sorts of things like that because they weren’t thinking of any danger and didn’t notice it. I’m putting it badly but you do understand what I mean. And anyway, he said, that was going to be the trouble, he thought, with Project B.’

PB: ‘ Did he describe it at all more closely than that?’

MC: ‘He said I’d put it into his head.’

PB: ‘What? Do you mean to say a scientist – a top-flight scientist like Robbie actually said to you that you had put something into his scientific brain? You don’t know the first thing about science.’

MC: ‘Of course not. But I used to try and put a little common sense into people’s brains. The cleverer they are, the less common sense they have. I mean, really, the people who matter are the people who thought of simple things like perforations on postage stamps, or like somebody Adam….

Scientists can only think of things for destroying you. Well, that’s the sort of thing I said to Robbie. Quite nicely, of course, as a kind of joke. He’d been just telling me that some splendid things had been done in the scientific world about germ warfare and experiments with biology and what you can do to unborn babies if you get at them early enough…..

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

And so I said it’d be much more to the point if Robbie, or someone like Robbie, could think of something really sensible. And he looked at me with that, you know, little twinkle he has in his eyes sometimes and said,”Well, what do you consider sensible?” And I said, ”Well, instead of inventing all these germ warfares and these nasty gases, and all the rest of it, why don’t you just invent something that makes people happy?…’

Agatha Christie and Two Wars

Would Agatha Christie finish writing The Mysterious Affair At Styles, had the Great War not occurred?

It changes her life and her writing. Like so many others, her family life is impacted. She conveys her painful experiences and their circumstances in a number of plots and through her characters.

Agatha Christie’s VAD Identity Card.

After her whirlwind romance to Colonel Archibald Christie, the newlywed Agatha works  at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay and finds the secret of Bromide that will launch her name.

During many walks in Dartmoor she brews the sub-plots that will captivate her readers right until the end. Her meeting with the Belgian refugees paves the way to  the creation of a little man with an egg-shaped head Hercule Poirot.

Archie  comes back and sees his shy wife is rising to fame. The post-war years see he gradually withdraw himself from the public life and from Agatha, playing golf more often. He does not seem to appreciate either Agatha’s allusion of him in Captain Hastings, Poirot’s sidekick.

Furthermore, it concerns Agatha that the civilian life does not suit her husband. He has a job in the City, but he is unhappy. His feeling of ‘not fitting in’ is captured through the likes of Alexander Bonaparte Cust (see Notes On ABC Murders) and the charming but domineering David Hunter (see Notes On Taken At The Flood).

Meanwhile, she maintains her optimism towards their marriage. In 1922, the couple leaves the infant Rosalind in the care of her grandmother Clara and her aunt Madge for a ten-month voyage around the world to promote the British Empire Exhibition.

In the Introduction of The Grand Tour, a collection of Agatha’s letters to her mother, Mathew Prichard writes that the decision to go is a difficult one.

On the one hand, it is driven by Archie’s restlessness and dissatisfaction towards his job. On the other, Agatha is a keen traveller and she sees it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. It upsets her sister, however, that Agatha will not be able to meet her brother Monty on leave from Africa.

The Man In The Brown Suit (1922) is the fruit of the journey. Set in South Africa, the places mentioned is a reminder of the world that is about to change (Machonoland became Rhodesia in 1895, then eventually  Zimbabwe in 1980). The diarist Sir Eustace Pedler derives from Major Belcher, of whom is the member of the expedition.

In Murder In The Links (1924), Agatha incorporates Archie’s hobby into the plot. Also, Hastings finds his ‘Cinderella’; their chance encounter on the train has become the opening chapter.

By the same token, her creation of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford speaks volumes of the different Agatha before her separation and divorce. The adventurous and spontaneous Agatha fails to reach out to Archie. His state of mind is anyone’s guess nevertheless, for most probably it is only his wife who understands the extent of his suffering from the horrors of the war and depression. She does not reveal anything in public, although her discussing mental illnesses in her books may be related to Archie’s ‘issues.’

In Alexander Bonaparte Cust she portrays a traumatised ex-soldier. She puts him upfront as the main suspect. Surprisingly, Poirot sides with him despite the suggestive evidences and therefore Inspector Japp is not amused.

Donald Sumpter as AB Cust in 1992’s adaptation of Poirot series.

Hastings : ‘We know a fair amount about him.’

Poirot : ‘We know nothing at all! We know where he was born. We know he fought in the war and received a slight wound in the head and that he was discharged from the army owing to epilepsy. We know that he lodged with Mrs. Marbury for nearly two years. We know that he was quiet and retiring – the sort of man that nobody notices. We know that he invented and carried out an intensely clever scheme of systemised murder. We know that he made certain incredibly stupid blunders. We know that he killed without pity and quite ruthlessly. We know, too, that he was kindly enough not to let blame rest on any other person for the crimes he committed. If he wanted to kill unmolested – how easy to let other persons suffer for his crimes. Do you not see, Hastings, that the man is a mass of contradictions? Stupid and cunning, ruthless and magnanimous – and that there must be some dominating factors that reconcile his two natures.’   

We know nothing at all… Is it possible, I wonder, whether the sentence is actually Agatha’s thoughts about Archie’s mind? She knows nothing at all that Archie will leave her; knows nothing at all the reason behind his being unsupportive after Clara’s passing and knows nothing at all why their marriage does not work.

 

What she knows of, Tommy and Tuppence will grow old together and Poirot and Hastings’s friendship will last.

 

In the Second World War, Agatha’s son-in-law’s life is claimed. Mrs. Folliat (see Notes On The Dead Man’s Folly) loses her husband before the War broke and her two sons in the process. Three death duties are enough to make her sell the estate. ‘So many things are hard, Mr. Poirot,’ she said, now living in the lodge at the outskirt of her former home.  This seems to mirror what the authoress must have been through when selling Ashfield in 1938.

In spite of the difficult times, Agatha marvels at channelling tragedies to her advantage. For writing is her refuge and her comfort. A vocation.

In the Epilogue of her archaeological memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946) she writes:

‘For after four years spent in London in war-time, I know what a very good life that was, and it has been a joy and refreshment to me to live those days again…Writing this simple record has been not a task, but a labour of love. Not an escape to something that was, but the bringing into the hard work and sorrow of today of something imperishable that one not only had but still has!’

 

 

 

Notes On The Mousetrap

Rating: four out of five

Year of Release: 25th November 1952

Motive for Murder: Revenge

Plot:

It is the first day Monkswell Manor opens its door for the guests. The newly-married Giles and Mollie Ralstons’ business venture is about to prove its worthwhile. Five guests are present amidst the heavy snow; four have booked their rooms in advance. The last guest, an Italian man, turns up after he abandons his car which has been stuck in the snowdrift. Nonetheless, he is not the last to come as a detective sergeant knocks the door later in the evening to investigate a murder case. Afterwards, the snow storm makes the road impassable.

The set of ‘The Mousetrap’ at St. Martin’s Theatre, London. Mrs. Boyle sits in an armchair while Miss Casewell is by the fire.

Mrs. Maureen Lyon was strangled in her home in Paddington, London, a day before. The main suspect is a man wearing a dark overcoat, light scarf and a soft felt hat. Police’s attention is drawn to the guest house as two people therein are linked to the death. What relates the demise of a middle-aged woman and a child abuse case at the Longridge Farm nearby?

The next day, a guest is found dead in the lounge after lunch.

Highlights:

Act I:      Scene 1 The Great Hall at Monkswell Manor. Late Afternoon

Scene 2  The same. The following day after lunch

Act II:    The same. Ten minutes later.

Time: the present

Eight people confined in a house- the Ralstons, five guests and a police man- strangers to one another, or so they thought. The plot deploys Christie’s often-quoted adage in her books: old sins have long shadows. Hence the motive of the crime: revenge. More importantly is not just one, but three targets. Two of them have been ‘done.’

Over ten years before Mrs. Lyon and her husband lived in the Longridge Farm fostering three children: James (little Jimmie), George and Katherine. They were abused under the farmers’ care and Jimmie died from starvation as a result. After being released and the Lyons were imprisoned, the other two were then separated; the girl was adopted and has been known to live abroad whilst George stayed in England and had another foster parent.

Years later the Lyons were released from jail. The husband has died already but the wife was not, not until she was tracked down and recently killed.

In ‘Tape-Measure Murder’ (Miss Marple’s Final Cases) the female sleuth must think of a clue that will put the murderer on the crime scene. Much to Inspector Slack’s astonishment, she suggests that the stabbing of Mrs. Spenlow is an ‘old-fashioned crime.’ The clue? A pin on Constable Palk’s top, the first person arrived to examine the body.

In the play an old habit known intimately only by another person gives away the murderer’s identity. Something which is rather difficult to realise by the audience, given its subtleness and other red-herrings that follow. All the same, the killings have been carried out owing to the circumstances of a tragic event occurred dated years beforehand.

The O’Neill children (from left): Terence, Dennis and Tom.

It is said that Christie was affected by Dennis O’Neill’s death in the hands of the Goughs whilst his two other brothers, Terence and Tom were miraculously survived.  In the reality, despite only spent six years in prison, the Goughs died naturally and Tom pinpoints the downside of foster care in A Place Called Hope. In Christie’s world, however, the dramatisation highlights the extent of the emotional scars for the siblings concerned and the survivor’s guilt; George in this case.

What interests me nevertheless is the mental health issue Christie seemed to bring up: that George’s feeling as a failure to have protected his younger brother is left untreated.  Perhaps the possibility of it was not likely to be addressed by the Social Services. Moreover, he might have been told to forget, forgive and move on whereas his anger and frustration remain unresolved.

Who is ‘George’ in the play? Readers, that for you to seek the answer (and please do not spoil it in your comments). More significantly to my mind is Christie’s having addressed such a case in her power as a household name. Bearing in mind that she had the first-hand experience of grief for the loss of father at a tender age, I suppose this was the case dear to her heart.  In hindsight, she might have felt the desperation of Christopher Wren (see The Most Fascinating Character) about the passing of his mother.  In her biography the authoress writes that her father’s demise was the end of childhood, which only emphasises the impact on her.

As for the killer, his psychopath character makes him want to wipe off everyone in connection with the case. Hence his knowing of the whereabouts of the retired magistrate who matched him and his siblings with the Lyons and the young school teacher of whom Jimmie pled for help before his death.

When the curtain fell at St. Martin’s Theatre, I left West End with a lingering thought: what will happen to the murderer? Will he stand the trial and charged for his crime? Or will he be shut in a psychiatric ward on the grounds of ‘diminished responsibilities’?

It intrigues me that the play is the one which suggests openly about child abuse and the criticism towards foster system in the UK. For in her books Christie does not elaborate the future of the children who become orphans following the crime and most importantly about their mental health. Take the examples of the Christows’s children (see Notes On The Hollow), Carla Le Marchant (Five Little Pigs), Celia Ravenscroft (Elephants Can Remember) and the two-year-old Betty Sprot (N or M); they would all grow up without their parents. What will become of them? It is good to know that little Betty is adopted by Tuppence Beresford and Le Marchant has had a loving relative in Canada.   Nonetheless, Terence Christow is thirteen when his parents are dead and I can see the smart but insane George in the other child.  The chilling words of George’s no doubt in Act II rekindles my thought: ‘“I’ll kill them all when I’ve grown up.” That’s what I said to myself. Because grown-ups can do anything they like.’

Be that as it may, the unmasking of George takes more than resentment and pain. For there is also jealousy, an ungrateful old woman who criticises her host at every opportunity and an Army deserter who checks in under an assumed identity. Also, a wife who does not tell her past to her husband for her trying to forget all about it. And how about an ex-Army officer who lies about his presence? Not to forget the Italian, the unexpected guest.

On the whole, the longest-running play in London’s West End serves as a bitter reminder of a catalogue of child abuse still happening at present.

 

The Twists:

-Miss Casewell recognises her estranged brother’s habit of twirling his hair in a special way

– Mollie Ralston is the young teacher to whom Jimmie wrote before his death

 

Cast of Characters:

Guests at Monkswell Manor:

Sheila Sim as Mollie Ralston and her husband Richard Attenborough as Detective Sergeant Trotter when the play was opened in the Ambassador’s Theatre on 25th November 1952.

Mrs. Boyle (a retired magistrate)

Christopher Wren (a young architect)

Miss Casewell (English, who live abroad)

Major Metcalf (a retired army officer)

Mr. Paravicini (Italian, the unexpected guest)

Others:

The Ralston (Giles and Mollie, the proprietors of the guest house)

Detective Sergeant Trotter

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Christopher Wren

‘Call myself Christopher Wren? It just amused me. And then they used to laugh a t me at school and call me little Christopher Robin. Robin-Wren-association of ideas. It was hell being at school.’ He tells Mollie Ralston when they are alone in the lounge in Act II. Furthermore, he acknowledges of his being a deserter and just like the murderer, he was put in foster care following the passing of his mother.

He opens up to Mrs. Ralston shows a lonely personality that has behaved ‘silly’ to the eyes of other guests and Mollie’s husband. Mrs. Boyle sums him up as ‘a singularly ill-mannered and neurotic young man’ after his poor joke that she would have felt his hands on her throat. Giles wants him to be away from his wife for fear of Wren being the murderer.

His presence in Monkswell Manor might be his having been on the run since he left the Army. For what he has done, regardless the motive, is considered as a serious crime and must be prosecuted. It is highly likely that he has escaped from his captors so far -until when? What will become of him after Mrs. Boyle’s killer is revealed? Will Mrs. Ralston give Wren away to the authority?

It fascinates me that Wren was in the war. Did he enlist himself or was it part of the deal towards the crime of which he had been accused? Readers might recall Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement and James Folliat in Dead Man’s Folly (see the Notes). In the latter book, the ‘bad son went to war to atone his sins and was reported to have been killed in action. Whereas Robbie Turner has agreed to serve in the Army after being falsely charged with the rape of a young girl, what actually is Wren’s circumstances (or whoever he is)?

At any rate his life story opens a window of another story of the shadows of the War.

 

Clues:

Act Two: conversation between the murderer (B) and a guest (A)

A: ‘Georgie, Georgie, you know me, don’t you? Don’t you remember the farm, Georgie? The animals, that fat old pig, and the day the bull chased us across the field. And the dogs. (She crosses to Left of the sofa table).

B: ‘Dogs?’

A: ‘Yes, Spot and Plain.’

B: ‘Kathy?’

A: ‘Yes, Kathy – you remember me now, don’t you?’

B: ‘Kathy, it is you. What are you doing here?’ (He rises and moves to Right of the sofa table).

A: ‘I came to England to find you. I didn’t recognize you until you twirled your hair the way you always used to do.’ (B twirls his hair) Yes, you always did it. Georgie, come with me. (Firmly) You’re coming with me.’

B: ‘Where are we going?’

A: (Gently, as if to a child)‘It’s all right, Georgie. I’m taking you somewhere where they will look after you, and see that you won’t do any more harm.’

(A exits up the stairs, leading B by the hand. C switches on the light, crosses to the stairs and looks up).